On Chance, Choice, and Character

We live in a world of cause and effect. [1] Every act we carry out in our lives – from deciding on our life’s path to scratching an itch – is caused by prior events ranging in significance from our birth circumstances to the whirl and buzz of billions of neurons generating a decision. Within such a world, there are various genetic, social, and environmental determinants of our thought, emotion, speech, and action, many of them far beyond our control.But can we play a role in this continuous causal process? Can we avoid being virtual automatons molded by resourceful advertising agencies, public relations firms, mass media, pundits, and others? Can we take charge of our lives and assume more responsibility for designing and implementing who we are and are not? Of course we can, and recognizing our starting point and the on-going influences in our lives can help us self-determine our character, habits, and behavior as we go forward.

The Birth Lottery

All sentient beings, human and nonhuman, are born into the world as we are and through no choice, cause, or fault of our own. As such, who we are – who you are – is overwhelmingly dependent on the birth lottery. Despite this fact, most of us live our lives as if we somehow “earned” the situations, abilities, rights, and privileges we accidentally inherited. Even more arrogantly, most of us live as if those who we exploit in our food, clothing, and other choices deserve none of the rights and other benefits we inherited, and even more so, deserve the enslavement, brutality, and premature death that we inflict on them through blithe or callous choices.

Part of the reason for such moral weakness is that we have evolved as self-protecting, egocentric, and greedy organisms. We are genetically designed to think, react, speak, and act in ways that serve us or our species. Whatever genetically-caused altruism we were born with, it very likely evolved only to the extent of its adaptive benefits or at least to the extent that it was harmless to our species.

Since we did not cause our genes to evolve the way they did, we are not responsible for the resulting aspect of our natural inclination toward self-centered injustice and violence. But merely being aware of our genetic conditioning can help us in overcoming it.

Social Conditioning

All human beings, and most non-human beings, are also born into a social world inhabited by other individuals and institutions that mold our attitudes, thoughts, emotions, and actions. Who we are – who you are – is dependent, to a far lesser extent than the birth lottery, on specific social conditioning. [2] We are also strongly influenced by genetics to conform to our social environment and to be easily molded by others, especially in our youth. Indeed, humans are likely the most socially dependent animals on Earth. This social dependency is both physical and psychological, and while it is greatest while we’re young, it lasts our entire lifetime.

Social conditioning is often so strong that people equate it with morality itself. Ranking fourth on Kohlberg’s six stages of moral development, many people define behavior as “morally good” if and only if it leads to social approbation and “morally bad” if and only if it leads to social rejection. As a result of this confusion between social conditioning and morality, the massive atrocities that humans have collectively engaged in throughout history, from genocides to brutal enslavement to animal agriculture, can be largely explained by social conditioning, both individually and collectively. [3]

As an example, many people feel good criticizing or ridiculing veganism because it is socially acceptable to be an outspoken speciesist in a way that it is not acceptable to be even a mild racist (despite these two prejudices being identical in substance). If these people lived in a society that took speciesism as seriously as racism, they would find such speciesist behavior deplorable. The average speciesist attitude of today, if it were a racist attitude, would consist of treating a race of people as an expendable and renewable resource, and breeding and slaughtering them by the billions annually. The violence associated with average speciesism is far worse than the violence associated with extreme racism.

Natural Authenticity

For some of us, genetics favoring social conformity are not as strong as in the majority of people. We are naturally inclined toward existential questions about authenticity and self-definition. We’re open to not only considering paths less traveled, but taking those paths with enthusiasm. We realize that, because we live in a world of cause-and-effect, we can make choices enabling us to define meaning in our lives and implement our definition – to make our lives and character a continuous and improving work of art.

Self-Definition

While it may be more difficult for people who are starting with a strong genetic disposition for social conformity, or who have been habitually conforming for decades, it is possible for almost anyone to break free of social conditioning. It is never too late, as Bertrand Russell once said, to “hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” It is never too late to define or re-define ourselves; to look critically at the habits that make up our existing character, including destructive and defeating paradigms; to aspire toward improved character and personal growth paradigms; and to implement our self-definition to become stronger, gentler, more self-reliant, and happier people.

A Continuous, Lifelong Process

There are at least a few metaphors that describe the process of defining, implementing, and re-defining one’s character. We can look at our life as a continuous work of art: molding clay; sculpting stone; or painting a canvas. It is said that Michelangelo commented about the statue of David that he saw David in the stone and carved away everything that was not David. We can look at our life as a building, continuously being improved: designing it; re-designing it; remodeling it; renovating part of it; adding an addition. We can look at our life as computer software: envisioning its purpose; designing the program; re-designing the program; writing the program; running the program; de-bugging the program.

Whatever metaphor we use (or don’t use), the point is that we are responsible for ourselves from the examination and visionary stage to design to implementation and re-design. Yes, we live in a world of cause and effect, but we can choose the causes that mold our character – our collection of habits and behaviors – and that makes all the difference between being a virtual automaton molded by advertising and public relations agencies and others in our amoral, consumerist culture versus being an autonomous, self-reliant, self-defining person who regularly questions the status quo in a continuous effort of improvement.

A Natural Effect

After spending sufficient time examining our origins, social conditioning, character, habits, and behavior, we begin to realize, among other things, how the birth lottery and social conditioning – 100% pure luck – has entirely created our starting point. In realizing our fate along with the fate of billions of other sentient beings – whose lives are as important to them as our lives are to us – we see ourselves in them. We see that ultimately, pure luck is the only difference between us and “them”. There, but for the turn of fate, go I. We begin to deeply empathize with other sentient beings who, at a very fundamental level, are no different from ourselves – they all strive, often desperately, for life and comfort. And because we have the power to question and change ourselves and our behavior and habits, we embrace veganism and give a strong voice to those innocent “others” who, through no fault of their own, were not born with the ability to join us in fighting for their freedom from the tyranny of greed and ignorance.

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Notes:

[1] See Determinism in Human Behavior and Its Implications for Advocacy in this blog.

[2] The birth lottery, because it determines our species and genetics, where we are born, when we are born, and who our parents and teachers are, is far more of an influence on us than social conditioning, per se.

[3] Enslavement, genocides, and similar atrocities seem to be far more a direct product of social conditioning than genetics, per se. Genetic evolution explains why we are a violent species in general and so easily influenced by social conditioning, but it is the social conditioning itself that leads to widespread social acceptance of atrocities. Atrocities are not universal phenomena among humans, but occur frequently in reaction to certain political and social conditions.

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